Reinventing universities in the media

David Kernohan responds to respected policy wonk Sonia Sodha’s latest piece for The Guardian: 'It's time to reinvent what universities can be'.
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At our best, HE wonkery is very like academia – in that ideas are shared, evidence evaluated, modifications suggested and literature built upon. At our worst, wonkery is also very like academia, in that those with power and contacts feel able to postulate on topics they have researched little and understand less of.

It is in the former spirit – I hope – that I offer some criticism of Sonia Sodha’s latest piece for The Guardian: ‘It’s time to reinvent what universities can be’.

Sodha has some serious wonk cred – she’s worked at Demos, IPPR, Dartington, Which?, and advised Ed Milliband on small businesses. But she is not a higher education specialist, and her article is riven with the ahistoricism that suggests a wonk writing in an area they don’t work in.

Just to take a simple example, she asserts:

Unlike 50 years ago, when a tiny, socially elite proportion went to university, they [new students] will be joining almost 50% of their peers in studying for a degree, facing average costs of upwards of £46k for a three-year degree, including tuition and living costs, compared with the generous grants available up until the 1990s.

“Generous” grants are, in policy terms, a blip in student support. Only in the 80s could they be considered generous, or even liveable. (Fun fact: The largest ever increase in student support grants – a quadrupling, no less – happened under the Thatcher administration in 1980).

A little over 50 years ago, huge steps were taken to ensure that access to university education widened: an achievement in widening HE participation almost unparalleled since, unless you count the changes to polytechnic status in 1992. The 1962 Education Act meant that, for the first time, local authorities were required to provide grants for living costs and fees – a state of affairs that lasted until the imposition of top-up fees in the early 00s. The Robbins report in 1963 began the expansion of UK HE that has continued ever since.

Robbins, however, was famously blunt about what a university education should provide:

In a period of rapidly changing knowledge there is undeniably a tendency to add new knowledge year by year to an already full curriculum. It is easier to add than to take away, It is difficult to reach agreement as to where to impart less knowledge and where to concentrate more on principles. Especially where an element of professional preparation is involved, the pressure is all the other way. […] The essential aim of a first degree course should be to teach the student how to think. In so far as he is under such pressure to acquire detailed knowledge that this aim is not fulfilled, so far the course fails of its purpose. (para 254)

I would suspect that Ms Sodha is not for a moment suggesting that the purpose of a university course should not be “to teach the student how to think”. But her dismissal of the values of the higher education system of 50 years ago, as “employers are demanding a completely different set of skills”, is troubling when seen in the wider context of this decades-old conversation.

Robbins argued for less specialisation; broader, more principles-based education. Sodha argues for more specialism. In a world where jobs for life are rare and career changes frequent surely a broader, principles-led education is a better investment than a course aimed at a job that may well not exist in 5 years?

Debates about the benefits and value of higher education are so prevalent in the current climate, from the industrial orthodoxy of Browne to the neo-liberal radicalism of Thrun and Thiel, that to decry the exclusion of these issues in debates betrays, at best, a highly selective reading list.

Most of the proposed remedies to the current “nonsense” of a world-leading and diverse UK higher education systems where student demand exceeds supply, already exist.

Oxford, just to pick on her first example, already offers a huge range of free and open online tuition. From podcasts, to commentary, to online materials for continuing education, Oxford remains at the global forefront of open online education. The main reason they don’t offer MOOCs is because MOOCs are a low-quality commercialised flavour-of-the-month (or flavour of 2012) that sits poorly with the values, standing and history of somewhere like Oxford.

Professional co-funded degrees? – already happen, though student interest is limited. Intensive two year courses linked to employers – try a Foundation Degree. Franchising and external accreditation offered by universities to other providers? Old news. Links to volunteering and work experience? – everywhere.

It’s pleasing to see a citation of the value that the Open University adds to the sector, as a means of access to higher learning for those who could not attend a traditional university. These days, the OU are one of many institutions that offer online distance education, not least the 150 year old distance learning provision from the University of London. But to see the establishment of the OU as a part of a realisation by the Wilson Government that it was “the only way to increase access in the face of a reluctant sector” again flies against history, underplaying the superb work of Jennie Lee and Lord Taylor, and the roots of the proposal in the technological experimentation of the BBC and similar activity around the world.

So where does the Sodha article leave us? What is the point that she is making? A list of already existing innovations and a vague exhortation to the higher education sector to “evolve to keep pace with the world around them”? For me, the language on the limitations of the market is the bigger story, coupled with an understanding of the need for a more hands-on approach to ensure that we can develop the HE sector that the UK needs. What is missing is an engagement with the discussions and debate that are defining a genuinely new vision of a sector that can shape rather than react to changes in society.

9 responses to “Reinventing universities in the media

  1. Thanks for taking the time to engage with and critique my piece David- much appreciated. Just a few brief thoughts/responses:

    -I don’t say that HE should become more specialised or focused on knowledge at the expense of skills. The point is one about match with skills needed in the modern labour market. Lots of those are transferable, not specific.

    -I refer in the piece quite specifically to the ‘nonsense’ of having a market where students pay the same fees for very different things. It isn’t a comment on British higher education in general.

    -Offering online learning is very different to enabling students to study for a good proportion of the degrees you offer through a combination of distance and on-campus learning. Yes a lot of MOOCs are poor quality. And that’s partly because the online learning they encapsulate is not linked to studying for good degrees at well-respected universities. That’s why I say it’s pointless to spend time debating the latest technology without thinking about the system within which it fits.

    -Obviously it would be ridiculous to claim that the innovations I mention in the piece – including more employer co-funded degrees – don’t exist – in fact, I mention an example! And some of the examples you cite are not equivalent – eg a two-year foundation degree is not equivalent to doing a full BA in two years. My point is not that they don’t exist but that they remain marginal in a system that is still centred on the traditional model. And in fact, the drop in part-time and mature students means we are potentially moving backwards.

    -You make an interesting point about student demand for some of these innovations- I think this is an unresolved question but I don’t think it is something that can be dismissed purely on the basis of what’s currently happening in the market.

    Finally, I of course accept your point that I am not from the sector itself. But I don’t think it’s healthy for it to be this that frames the sector’s response to the points I make (you are not the only person who has led with this in their critique). I would hope the university sector would welcome the engagement of non-specialists and I don’t think the implicit assumption that individuals not embedded in the sector or HE policy don’t know enough to comment or to challenge is conducive to fostering an open and healthy debate.

    Best

    Sonia

  2. Hi Sonia – thanks for leaving such a thoughtful and considered comment. I do hope that you don’t take my comments as a suggestion that you shouldn’t contribute to this important ongoing debate if you don’t have a significant knowledge of the HE sector. New voices and new perspectives are always welcome, both here at Wonkhe and more widely.

    However, I think it is fair to expect that others will attempt to situate fresh voices within the terms of ongoing discussions and the history of the field – and I hope that my doing so here hasn’t put you off being drawn into this fascinating and multifaceted policy conversation.

    I’m on a smartphone at the moment, but am keen to respond to your other points at another time

    David

  3. Just to respond to your other points:

    -I don’t say that HE should become more specialised or focused on knowledge at the expense of skills. The point is one about match with skills needed in the modern labour market. Lots of those are transferable, not specific.

    I’m still not convinced that the truly transferable skills are something that HE needs to focus directly on to deliver. My worry is that direct links to employers have led to short term skills needs being addressed, to the detriment of transferable skills. I’d also query whether it should be the role of HE (a system that employers contribute very little to) to deliver role-related skills, where employer training should be covering this.

    -I refer in the piece quite specifically to the ‘nonsense’ of having a market where students pay the same fees for very different things. It isn’t a comment on British higher education in general.

    But we have always paid the same fee for similar, not identical things. In the past this has been directly with general taxation covering one of four tariffs. Quality assurance should (and does, except for the recent unpleasantness with private providers) ensure that standards, if not content are equivalent.

    -Offering online learning is very different to enabling students to study for a good proportion of the degrees you offer through a combination of distance and on-campus learning. Yes a lot of MOOCs are poor quality. And that’s partly because the online learning they encapsulate is not linked to studying for good degrees at well-respected universities. That’s why I say it’s pointless to spend time debating the latest technology without thinking about the system within which it fits.

    Substantial online provision leading to accredited qualifications exists and is widespread – specifically at a masters level, where learners are often more experienced and capable independent learners. There has never been significant learner demand for accredited undergraduate provision, though this does exist in pockets. As you say, the current system of fees does mitigate against experiments such as this: innovative part time and remote delivery was more widespread under the previous regime.

    -Obviously it would be ridiculous to claim that the innovations I mention in the piece – including more employer co-funded degrees – don’t exist – in fact, I mention an example! And some of the examples you cite are not equivalent – eg a two-year foundation degree is not equivalent to doing a full BA in two years. My point is not that they don’t exist but that they remain marginal in a system that is still centred on the traditional model. And in fact, the drop in part-time and mature students means we are potentially moving backwards.

    Again the current fee system mitigates against this. Raises in PT tariffs have significantly hurt the OU (especially) and others. Two year BA/BSc degrees exist in Derby, Plymouth, Kaplan, Staffordshire and elsewhere but demand is limited – not least because many students support themselves by working part-time during a less intense traditional three year degree.

    -You make an interesting point about student demand for some of these innovations- I think this is an unresolved question but I don’t think it is something that can be dismissed purely on the basis of what’s currently happening in the market.

    So a lot more research is needed, and on that point we are entirely agreed. Too much provision (old-style as well as innovative) is developed based either on an expectation that demand is there or on poor quality student data. Developing courses around actual individual student need would be a huge step forward, but would need a far more flexible system to support it.

  4. I’ve found this one an interesting blog and follow up discussion so have come in with a few disjointed thoughts:

    On the point of employers demanding a completely different set of skills from the past, that has always been the case. Employers’ precise demands for technical skills have and always will change. However, what’s the evidence that HE is any worse at matching this now than in the past? It’ll never be perfect and businesses need to take responsibility for providing skill training too. Do we need to change the model or just ensure it has flexibility built in to it? The historic evidence suggests perhaps we are better at adapting to this than we often worry. The data on unemployment rates is very good on this – the rate spikes occur with recessions, but in general most graduates find employment within 6 months of graduating, and have done so for 40 years +: http://hecsu.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/graduate-unemployment-rates-after-six.html

    If employment rates were that healthy across the economy, we’d be in a much better shape. It’s not graduate unemployment which is causing our economic problems.

    The move to shorter time with each employer makes flexibility ever more important. Though it was ever so – Robbins is worth quoting in full on this:

    “While emphasising that there is no betrayal of values when institutions of higher education teach what will be of some practical use, we must postulate that what is taught should be taught in such a way as to promote the general powers of the mind. The aim should be to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women. And it is the distinguishing characteristic of a healthy higher education that, even where it is concerned with practical techniques, it imparts them on a plane of generality that makes possible their application to many problems – to find the one in the many, the general characteristic in the collection of particulars.”

    On the point about MOOCs, they have been embraced by prestigious universities in the US – it hasn’t stopped them facing the problems that David could and no doubt would happily set out in considerable detail. Perhaps the MOOC model, rather than the university, is the problem?

    Personally, I hate the idea of standardising first-year curriculums. The threat of homogeneity and universities failing to adapt are likely far higher if we have Government setting this centrally than if universities choose and adapt based on their own assessment of what is needed, what is still core and, in light of the ability of their incoming students, what is appropriate depends on what people have learnt before and their pathway into university.

    On what you say about part-time and mature students, this is a consequence of policy. It’s not about challenging universities to evolve. It’s about politicians reconsidering policy.

    Lastly, I do not think anyone is opposed to non-sector non-expert engaging. It’s about a non-sector non-expert getting a platform that most of us will never get to write an article that, as David puts it, ‘has a list of already existing innovations and a vague exhortation to the higher education sector to “evolve to keep pace with the world around them”’. Using terms like Ivory towers doesn’t help either.

  5. The thing we need to guard against is the potential tendency for policy to eat itself – that the generation of ideas feeds only off other policy documents which impoverishes the debate. Policy suggestions therefore are scaffolded on poor data and assumptions that get carried forward in each new iteration. It isn’t fair to hold Sunday newspaper articles up to the standards that we ought to expect of journal articles, but we do have to be careful. For me, the prime example of this is Barber, Donnelly & Rizvi “An Avalanche is Coming” – full of dire predictions – where an accusation of grade inflation was referenced to a Daily Mail article. Here wonks need to hold to some academic standards.

    It is absolutely the case that HE policy should reflect a diversity of provision – that’s a key issue that we have faced with the current reforms – the consequences outside the 3 year FT model have been poor. The English HE sector has happily developed provision to meet employer needs, delivered locally and in a variety of modes – often in partnership with FECs, sometimes by the FECs alone. The reluctance to fund different provision differently means that ‘market forces’ are absolutely at play in determining which provision thrives (they always have been – students have been choosing between universities for 800 years).

    Just as we must guard against assumptions about the present, we must also guard against assumptions about the past. 100 years ago a ‘modern’ university would be predominately comprised of non-residential students, a large number of whom would be sponsored by employers and likely to be taking courses in the evenings and on Saturdays. Depending on the place, less than a third would be taking specialised honours degrees, others on ‘pass’ degrees (more generally based) or taking diploma courses (there would be no PhD students – that doesn’t exist properly yet). Notions of 50 years ago tend to miss out the large amount of advanced work in CATS, Regional and Area Colleges and Colleges of Education – again much of it different to the honours degree ‘ideal’.

    This would all be cheerful whimsy if the policy ideas that come from these pieces weren’t so potentially dangerous. What twisted logic would make anyone think that standardisation of curriculum (set by Russell Group universities) to encourage transfers was a good idea?

  6. Thanks David and Tom – quick responses to your points.

    David: I think there’s an important debate about the extent to which it’s the job of universities to develop what you might call a set of transferable ‘employability’ skills. I personally think a 50% participation model (or if we’re being even more ambitious 60 or 70%) requires more of a focus on employability skills. This is obviously a long-standing debate and people will have different views – and it raises questions about how you might measure them so the debate isn’t unnecessarily woolly (which I am happy to concede that it is!)

    On the issue of fees, I think when the government is paying directly for more provision and the direct student contribution is lower (eg £1k) it makes more sense for this to be uniform. As you move to a system where students are more liable for more of the costs, I think there have to be differentiated price tags. That is certainly what govt was assuming would happen when it raised the fee cap – but as it obviously misunderstood the dynamics of the market in doing so.

    On quality assurance, there have been questions raised by several bodies/commissions that have questioned the robustness of the existing system, and its focus on processes rather than outcomes – including a couple of select committee reports and the Commission on the Future of HE (sorry I don’t have time to dig out the exact refs). This raises all sorts of difficult questions about what a more robust system of regulation would look like given the independence of the sector – but I think there are ways in which existing elements of the system could certainly be strengthened, such as the external examiner system.

    I definitely agree that the policy context is critical. Setting issues of demand aside, there is little incentive in the existing market for unis to innovate more around some of the things I mention. That’s why one of the things I call for is for funding for courses via the loan system to be more flexible and linked more to innovation.

    I agree there is some really interesting work to be done on student demand and needs – that looks at demand amongst prospective students but trying to do this in a way that unpacks their preconceptions about what employers value and what a good quality degree must look like.

    Tom on your points that are additional to the ones David makes:

    I don’t say anywhere that government should set a first-year ‘national curriculum’ for universities: but I don’t buy your argument that it is beyond groups of universities to work together to standardise first year content in courses like economics, the sciences, philosophy etc. Rates of switching between universities are still very low and I have heard anecdotal cases of how difficult it can be to switch to a different institution – this might also help with that.

    I’m sorry but I don’t share your view that my article was given a platform in the Observer that it didn’t deserve – I think it’s provoked a really interesting debate on here that too often we don’t have because it is actually pretty difficult for an outsider to challenge the sector on some of these issues. Too often we are shouted down as not understanding the value of HE because we are not in it. I do think the sector has a responsibility to do more to explicitly communicate, justify and debate its value with the public. And I think debates like these are helpful in doing so.

    On your point about ivory towers, I used that term deliberately because I think that on the whole, there is still too big a gap between the sector’s research and learning and what goes on outside it, which I think it could bridge better. Of course there are examples of where this is already happening, but I don’t think this is as widespread as it should be. I’m sure you disagree with me on that, but I’m not the only person outside of the sector who holds this view and it would be much better if the sector challenged our views with substance rather than breath a collective sigh of exasperation, which unfortunately reinforces people’s perceptions!

    1. Thanks for these points, Sonia. On the first two you’ve just stated your opinion, which is absolutely fine, but there’s not really much I can say in response to apart from to state that I don’t share your opinion 🙂

      Quality assurance is a very interesting issue. I’m glad that you mentioned the external examiner system as it is one of the key methods we use to ensure comparability between courses. There were proposals to beef up this system way back in the 2002 White Paper but nothing ever came of it, possibly because nothing needed to. It’s a robust system… the only caveat is that it would be good to formally recognise the effort and time academics devote to making it work.

      Your point on a perceived focus on “process rather than outcomes” betrays another difference in the ways we conceptualise the HE system. Outcomes are very much dependent on the efforts of individual students – one of the real weaknesses (for me) of the current offer is the emphasis on contact hours as a proxy for the quality of the student experience. By measuring processes we ensure that the right opportunities are being offered – it is up to students to decide to take them, which is less easy to quantify.

      Our illustrious editor would probably mention last years QAA brohouha (#qaamaggedon) at this point – I’m less convinced that the review of the QAA contract and accompanying consultation betray any great concern about the quality of what the QAA do. Indeed – the (old style public sector) QAA inspections are probably the most robust in the world. I suspect there was some pressure during the Willetts era to make these more flexible in order to allow new market entrants, but my interpretation is that this pressure has reduced after the more general concerns of actual fraudulent behaviour in new market entrants.

    2. Standardising might make it easier to switch but would reduce choice for students and make it very difficult to update. Decision making in one institution takes long enough. Getting a whole group of academics across institution together to decide on standardised curricula would only make the teaching less flexible and so less likely to “evolve to keep pace with the world around them”.

      I did not mean that it did not deserve a platform. The Observer can hire whoever they want and it is good to have higher education debated. However, the criticisms here are based in the broadest terms that what you wrote isn’t as grounded in research and the ongoing debates as it might have been. By all means, both insiders and outsiders should challenge and debate higher education. However, anyone who does needs to make sure they know their facts and have done their research because all too often journalistic pieces breeze into issues like this with a shaky grasp of the issues – I’ve written about this on wonkhe before – http://www.wonkhedev.jynk.net/blogs/fighting-deliberate-ignorance-in-the-press/.

      My counterpoint on the ivory towers point would be that it would be helpful if your points were proven, rather than based on a vague sense that universities need to move with the times and reinvent themselves. I’m still not entirely sure what your evidence for one of your key points, that universities are not equipping students for work, is, for example.

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